Working in social media, there seems to be a constant stream of new features to research and explore every week. Despite Google searches providing pages of results claiming they can help me in this endeavor, not every click is a revelation. Most information I find is factually correct, but much of it is also hard to read as many writers don’t customize their content to fit the demands of online audiences.
How to write well for digital
Writing for digital platforms requires different considerations than traditional writing because readers consume it differently (Konnikova, 2014). As early as 1997, researchers determined that up to 79% of people scan when reading online (Nielsen, 1997). As such, getting to the point is important in this medium.
In his book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook, Gary Vaynerchuk (2013) offers 6 rules for creating digital content, one of which is limit demands on the user. William Zinsser similarly advises in On Writing Well author William Zinsser gives similar advice. “Writing improves,” he says, “in direct ratio to the number of things we can keep out of it that shouldn’t be there” (Zinsser, 2006, p. 12).
Thus, ease and simplicity are 2 of the best rules to remember for online writing. Your prose may be Shakespearian in quality, but if readers cannot scan it and understand it quickly, then they will view it as no more than bothersome clutter (Dunlevie, 2019).
This is not to say that quality doesn’t matter online – it does – but instead that readers’ attention spans matter just as much. The blessing and the curse of the internet is that a few clicks are all it takes to abandon one piece of content for another.
You can keep readers engaged if you (Australian Digital Transformation Agency, 2019):
- Make writing easily scannable using headings, subheadings, and numbered or bulleted lists
- Keep sentences and paragraphs short
- Use white space to visually declutter the page
- Choose typography and color contrasts that make content easily readable
- Make hyperlinks useful in location and descriptive in destination
- Make content accessible and readable on all devices, especially mobile ones
Don’t underestimate the importance of this last rule. Online readers depend heavily on mobile devices. Some, because of socioeconomic limitations, only have access to the internet through cell phone networks (Anderson & Kumar, 2019). Waiting for a media-heavy page to load or pinching to zoom in on small type are also barriers for a reader.
Let’s look at 2 blogs I recently found while researching Instagram hacks to understand the difference between readable and unreadable online content.
Readable content helps solve your problem
Sprout Social offers social media management solutions to help businesses measure, monitor, and publish content. This expertise suggests their writing should be a good resource for professionals in my field.
Their blog “13 must-know Instagram hacks for brands” is the kind of content I like to find because:
- A unified and simple first impression is given by the title and main image
- Organized headings and subheadings allow for easy scanning
- Numbered lists of instructions for each hack make them simple to try
- Short paragraphs of 2-3 sentences make following the ideas easy
- Short sentence structure with mostly basic word choices make it easily digestible
- Media is limited to reinforcing information already in the text, so content is comprehendible on multiple device sizes, even when the images are too small to see detail
- Use of white space keeps eyes focused on the writing
- Responsive design enables it to be read on a phone
- Hyperlinks allow easy navigation to section headings from the introduction
Overall, this blog gives me the information I’m looking for in a pleasant, easy way that motivates me to want to return the next time I’m researching.
Unreadable content makes you work for it
Creative Bloq specializes in advice for creative professionals. This site’s mission seems to indicate it should be a helpful resource to find content ideas for a visually-oriented channel such as Instagram.
But looking at their blog “6 Instagram hacks to transform your feed” makes you think twice because:
- Confusion about the subject is caused by 6 images within the header image
- Problems identifying the title arise with the lack of white space at the top of the page
- Eyes drift to previews of other blogs with the lack of white space on the side of the page
- It’s difficult to quickly find specific content, such as instructions, without section subheadings
- Repetitiveness and clunky sentences become frustrating time-wasters without subheadings to allow for easy scanning
- Inconsistency in paragraph breaks by topic makes it hard to follow ideas
- Long paragraphs inhibit scanning, especially on a phone
- Instruction steps separated only by commas in sentence form make them hard to follow
- It’s difficult to differentiate writing from images since media in some sections heavily features text
This blog’s writer wants to help me, but the way she presents her work only motivates me to abandon reading it.
Readable content is enjoyable content
Writing in a digital medium is as much about structure and presentation as it is about content. Eliminate burdens for your readers so they can understand what you’ve worked hard to create for them. Meet them where they are and they will appreciate you, and your writing, more for it. I know I do.
Anderson, M. & Kumar, M. (2019, May 7). Digital divide persists even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/07/digital-divide-persists-even-as-lower-income-americans-make-gains-in-tech-adoption/
Australian Digital Transformation Agency. (2019). Content guide. Retrieved from https://guides.service.gov.au/content-guide/
Dunlevie, S. (2019, August 7). 16 rules of blog writing and layout. Successful Blogging. Retrieved from https://www.successfulblogging.com/16-rules-of-blog-writing-which-ones-are-you-breaking/
Konnikova, M. (2014, July 16). Being a better online reader. The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/being-a-better-online-reader
Nielsen, Jakob. (1997, September 30). How users read on the web. Nielsen Norman Group. Retrieved from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/how-users-read-on-the-web/
Vaynerchuk, G. (2013). Jab, jab, jab, right hook: how to tell your story in a noisy social world. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
Zinsser, W. (2006). On writing well. New York, NY: HarperCollins.